Monday, 8 May 2023

Linen has been around for thousands of years and seen millions of uses. That’s a long stretch of time, and the samples of linen from that period are still in great shape today. Which says a lot for the materials longevity and durability- making it ideal for preserving other things to last as long as it.

As a family we have been in the linen business a long time. Not quite since its conception thousands of years ago, but 300 years is no small figure. In that time, we have learned a trick or two. So when it comes to linen we are peoples first and only stop.

Linen as we have already stated is very robust and that makes it well suited to protect valuable documents. Being creatives and inventors we like to innovate with linen and push the boundaries for how it is used. So in 1983 when the Bodleian Library wrote us a letter outlining their requirements for a Linen box fabric we set to work.

19 years later we were again approached to think outside the box and create ‘boxes’. Our new brown and navy box linen was conceived in 2002 by Tony Mack following a meeting with the Oxford Conservation Consortium in 2002 to match a fabric known as ‘Islandreagh Linen’, which was used in the conservation of rare books.

Bridget Mitchell owner of Arca Preservation, a specialist conservation company and a long time user of our box linen spoke to us about why the material is so important to her.

1. Bridget, you are an Institute of Conservation Accredited Book Conservator with 20 years’ experience, can you tell us a little about Arca Preservation.

I set up Arca Preservation in 2003 after leaving my position as Senior Book Conservator at the V&A in response to requests for cloth covered book boxes for volumes belonging to various collections. Working for myself fitted in well with having a young family and we moved from London to Norfolk to set up my studio.

A Latin word, “Arca” means a box or place to put things. I set the business up with the specific aim of supplying book boxes and preservation enclosures of the highest quality that provide individual preservation requirements for each volume contained. I assess the preservation needs of volumes for clients or take instruction from other book conservators who manage the conservation of collections. If the artefact has very specific or unusual requirements I design new box formats to accommodate unusual or required features. I fit the box to the book, not the book to the box.

The conservation of rare books, manuscripts and parchment charters, the preparation of printed and manuscript volumes for exhibition and the making of book cradles for display represents much of my work, but concentrating on box making in the early years means it is still the back bone of my business and the range of designs I now make has expanded enormously. Box designs now incorporate glazing for display, the housing of multiple objects within a single box and the provision of layered handling access to multiple artefacts. I have a design that allows the rotation of the object within the box so both the front and back boards could be viewed without handling the object and designs that allow the removal of the item from the box without handling the object itself.

The size of boxes I make varies enormously and I specialise in the making of outsize boxes for an equally varied range of contents. Books, manuscripts, charters and albums are in the majority but the range has included a 2.5m long Narwhal tusk, parchment manuscript rolls, Annie Leibowitz’s immense photographic portraits of the Queen, enormously long public school photographs, Charles I Wedding gloves, theatre portraits painted on glass panels. Mementos of lives taken too young (bereavement boxes) and human ashes have brought an interesting and poignant dimension to my work.

2016 will see Arca Preservation move into new, purpose built premises, designed to more easily accommodate the making of very large boxes, the running of box making courses and the purchase of new equipment. 2017 is shaping up to be equally as exciting with the taking on of new staff, revamping of our website, ( the purchasing of new technologies and the further expansion of our range of preservation solutions.

2. Arca performs a variety of conservation services. How do you select the best conservation material for the project?

Much of my work is concerned with the housing of treasure objects, so it is vital that the materials I use in the construction of my boxes are not deleterious to the contents, whether it is in direct or indirect contact with the artefact. The materials must perform their function over the lifetime of the enclosure and that the lifetime of the enclosure is as long as possible, so physical durability and chemical stability are critical. The material should be of the right substance and weight for the task required and must have the right finish for the project; this is particularly important for historic library settings and treasure objects. The material should also be affordable within the budget.

3. What drew you to William Clarks brown/navy box linen fabric?

The linen has a natural cloth finish which is aesthetically appropriate in close proximity with historic binding and artefacts. The brown cloth fits well into historic library settings, the natural finish is unobtrusive and the colour blends with the leather bound volumes on the shelf. However it is the strength of the linen fabric that I find is its greatest attribute. This has allowed me to produce boxes of larger dimensions than I might otherwise have felt was inappropriate with other fabrics on the market.

I also like the simplicity of this product, the use of natural fibres and finish means it does not contain plastic or synthetic compounds making the product sustainable and biodegradable.

4. What performance abilities does the box linen have that makes it well suited to document conservation?

Strength and physical durability of the cloth are characteristics I require, particularly for my large boxes with hinging pressure flaps and lids. I can be confident that the box/binding I make using this cloth will perform its function for many years, the cloth protecting both the contents and the structural integrity of the box. The physical durability of the cloth means that the box or binding will continue to look good throughout its lifetime. The cloth also accepts gold foil finishing easily and labels can be easily adhered to the exterior surface.

The cloth is lovely to work with being of a suitable thickness to allow the making of small boxes for fine bindings whilst providing the strength required for larger more robust structures. The cloth’s substance and forgiving nature means that it always gives the construction a high quality finish.

That this cloth is biodegradable means that it is permissible for use in churchyard settings for the burial of human ashes and remains.

5: How does a material like box linen perform compared to other materials for conservation.

William Clark linen is critical for my business. It has allowed me to be more adventurous with the boxes I design because I can be confident that this cloth has the strength to cope with the physical demands of outsize enclosures. I have used William Clark’s box linen fabric since it was first produced. My business relies on this covering cloth for its strength, quality and object sensitive aesthetic.

The cloth is also a pleasure to work with as it remains relatively dimensionally stable when glued compared with some other cloths. It does not curl or stretch excessively when damp and this ensures that, as it dries on the board box carcass, it does not uncontrollably warp or distort the board to which it is stuck. This feature is critical for the production of very large boxes. The natural finish of the cloth allows internal paper linings within the box to be adhered to the exterior face of the cloth with ease.

The exterior of this cloth is not acrylic coated so care must be taken when glueing out to ensure no adhesive is applied on the visible surface, however the cloth will tolerate light wiping with a damp cloth.

6. Can you tell us a little more about the development and design process Arca uses in the construction of its tailor-made boxes?

The starting point for any enclosure is to assess the preservation requirements of the object. If the object is complex; a binding with clasps or raised board decoration I take photographs, tracings and measurements. I am currently investigating the use of 3D scanning technology for this purpose. I note the materials from which the artefact is made as this may affect my choice of materials for the internal cavities of the box. A discussion with the owner/curator clarifies; the level of physical and chemical protection required, any requirements to be able to display the item within the box, the desired accessibility of the various components of the object, likely level of use/handling of the artefact and its storage situation i.e. will it rest vertical or horizontally on the shelf, is it housed in a historic setting etc?

With a clear understanding of the requirements of the box for both the object and the people who will use it I then settle on an appropriate design and the materials that will fulfil the objectives, designing any adaptations to the interior space I feel are necessary. This could mean making a standard pressure box but adapting the pressure flap to be wedge shaped or designing tailored pads to accommodate physical features on the boards of the binding.

If I feel that none of the standard box designs adequately meet the requirements of the object(s) and custodian, I will design a box that does. These designs are usually based on the typical box formats with which readers have become familiar, such as a drop-spine or charter box but will include major adaptations such as additional drawers, multiple base trays, glazing to restrict access to components, rotating or removable trays to eliminate the need for direct handling of the object. I draw these designs on CAD software which allows me to send illustrations and plans to clients. The affordability of new technologies will mean that in the future we will be able to send these drawings directly to computer cutting machines, speeding up the production of these bespoke designs.

I fit the box to the object, not the object to the box and my design must inflict no new damage on the object contained within, instead, help to reduce the rate of deterioration, physically and chemically. The box must be as simple and self-explanatory to use as possible and if it can contribute to the interpretation and understanding of a complex object without causing harm, it should do so e.g. Correct orientation, separate object components should be housed in the appropriate order etc. The aesthetic of the box should be sympathetic to the object, so fine bindings should be housed in a refined box and the materials from which the box is made should be of archival quality wherever possible and not visually jar with the artefact.

Once all aspects of the design, materials and finishing/labelling or decorative elements have been decided then I begin construction. I make all my boxes using double wall, step jointed construction techniques to produce strong, rigid and durable box carcasses. I also pay great attention to the finish of the box ensuring that it fits the object exactly, that it is easy to lift the artefact from the box with both hands as necessary and that the quality of the finish befits the quality of the contents.

7. What sort of documents are currently protected and housed within William Clark Box Linen?

Most recently I have been designing and constructing boxes for a renowned collection of medieval illuminated manuscripts. Some of these volumes are particularly large and heavy and all the boxes were covered in the brown William Clarke Linen. A large charter box for an Oxford University parchment charter will incorporate Perspex glazing to allow display of the artefact. Many rare manuscript volumes, incunabula, printed books, fine bindings, single sheet and rare pamphlet collections are housed within a variety of preservation enclosure types constructed with William Clark linen. These are housed within Cathedral, library, stately home and private collections across the country.

We love to hear how individuals like Bridget are using our products to create solutions for businesses and individuals. As a family we believe in keeping history at the forefront develops our foresight. It helps guide each and every venture and new development. If you would like to find out more about our box linen or other fabrics, please contact us using the details below. We look forward to hearing from you soon.

Article Images by Keith Osbourn Photography.